Review of Panorama 'Amazon' Expose

26th November 2013

The conditions exposed in Panorama’s expose on working conditions in Swansea Amazon came as no surprise to Socialist Party members who had read the article carried in the Socialist in September, based on the experiences of an agency worker employed over the Christmas period, like the worker who filmed for Panorama’s programme.

Last night’s programme concentrated on the physical strain, with the ‘picker’ the BBC placed in the site, having to walk up to 11 miles on a night shift, in a constant stop/go pattern. It also exposed the mental strain of constantly trying to meet targets, which for many of the workers spoken to on the programme, seemed barely possible. Targets took no account of differences between the distances of items to be picked and sometimes even failed automated lights, leaving the picker trying to find items in the dark.

As we pointed out in the Socialist, ‘points mean P45s’ with workers picking up disciplinary points for sickness, errors and failing to meet impossible targets. With Amazon taking on 1,500 workers in Swansea and 15,000 across the UK for the Christmas period, there is a further pressure to meet targets because workers are told that only those with the best records stand a chance of being kept on after Christmas. Expert legal opinion even challenged whether the length of the shift filmed, with such constant mental and physical strain, is outlawed by law. 

The programme answered one of the questions we posed in September about the level of support from the Welsh Government given to Amazon in order to bring their brand of exploitation to Wales. Amazon received a grant of £8.8 million towards the cost of the Swansea warehouse but also there was the construction of the Ffordd Amazon access road, with, according to Panorama, £4.9 million of Welsh Government funding. Amazon, a company that pays little or no tax in the UK, is being heavily subsidised by politicians of all mainstream parties in the different countries across the UK.

The appalling conditions at Amazon are definitely connected to the lack of union organisation and involvement in health and safety. The programme interviewed GMB General Secretary, Paul Kenny, who was damning about conditions but failed to outline a strategy for unionising the workforce. 
Swansea Socialist Party members have already been contacted by student activists in the city, collecting stories of students who’ve worked in Amazon on the same sort of casual conditions exposed last night, about organising a protest outside Amazon over the Christmas period.

Amazon’s practices need to be exposed but what is desperately needed is for the workers to be organised in a union. In order for casual workers to be inspired to join a union, they have to be convinced that whichever union aims to recruit there has a strategy and the determination to take Amazon on. Victories can be won over casualisation by aggressive bosses; just look at the victories over casualisation won by Hovis workers, organised by the BFAWU. That’s what is needed at Amazon now!

Ronnie Job
Swansea Socialist Party & Secretary, Swansea Trades Council (personal capacity)

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